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One is not sure as to what kind of artistic liberties director Sanjay Leela Bhansali has taken while making “Padmavati”, but one can say with absolute certainty that Padmavati is not a historical person. She is the central character of Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Awadhi epic ‘Padmavat’, hails from Simhala Dweep (Sri Lanka), marries Chittor’s ruler Ratan Sen who has to face many hardships to win her over, and is a motif for divine beauty. Jayasi was a Sufi poet who had settled in village Jayas (now in Rae Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh) as this region at that time was witnessing great activity of the Sufis of the Chishti silsila. ‘Padmavat’ is held in high regard as a love poem in the tradition of Sufi mysticism and Ratan Sen is supposed to be the symbol of soul that strives to unite with the divine, cosmic lover Padmavati. They are not historical characters although Jayasi has introduced a few historical characters like Sultan Allauddin Khilji as a villain. It is true that Khilji attacked Chittor and defeated its Rajput ruler but contemporary historical records do not mention either Ratan Sen or Padmavati. Padmavati is also referred to as Padmini in conformity with the traditional Indian classification of women into four categories – Padmini, Chitrani, Shankhini and Hastini –Padmini being the most beautiful, the most virtuous and the most ideal.

Representing beauty

As Padmavati represents the divine beauty, she is a Padmini and whosoever sees her comes under her divine spell.

Jayasi began to compose his mystical love epic in 1521 CE and finished it sometime circa 1540 CE. Although ‘Padmavat’ is part of the Hindi syllabus for under-graduate and post-graduate classes, it is hardly ever mentioned that Jayasi wrote it in Persian script and its various subsequent manuscripts were found in Arabic and Kaithi scripts too. When Tulsidas began to write his ‘Ramcharitmanas’, he took ‘Padmavat’ as a model and followed the same Doha-Chaupai structure that it employed. The only difference was in the language. While Jayasi’s Awadhi had the full flavour of the spoken dialect, Tulsidas crafted his own poetic language by making a most judicious and creative use of Sanskrit words and coalesced them so well with Awadhi that they did not stand out at all.

Ramchandra Shukla, a titan in the field of Hindi literary criticism and historiography, prepared a critical edition of ‘Padmavat’ that was brought out by Kashi Nagari Pracharini Sabha in 1924. In 1952, well-known Hindi scholar Mata Prasad Gupta prepared another critical edition that was published by Hindustani Academy, Prayag. Around the same time, top Hindi poet Maithili Sharan Gupta persuaded eminent art historian, archaeologist and cultural commentator Vasudev Sharan Agrawala to prepare a new critical edition. Titled ‘Padmavat: Malik Muhammad Jayasi krit Mahakavya (Mool aur Sanjeevani Vyakhya)’ [Padmavat: An epic written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi (Original and Sanjeevani Commentary)], it was published in 1955 and distributed by Lokbharti Prakashan on behalf of Gupta’s small publishing venture Sahitya Sadan, Jhansi. It happens to be the best critical edition as well as commentary till date.

Naming poems

As great Hindi scholar Hazari Prasad Dwivedi has noted, there was a long tradition of such love poems that were based on folk tales. Most of them were named after their heroines such as ‘Ratnavali’, ‘Padmavati’, ‘Vasavadatta’ and ‘Kuvalaymala’. In the ninth century CE, Kautuhal wrote a long love poem ‘Leelavati’ in Prakrit while Mayur penned a poetic work ‘Padmavati-katha’ in the tenth century CE. In ‘Prithviraj Raso’, we come across stories of Prithviraj’s marriage with Padmavati, Hansavati and Indravati etc. In Dwivedi’s view, the story of Padmavati had already been in circulation for many centuries when Jayasi decided to pick it up for his epic poem ‘Padmavat’. He came in the line of Sufi poets like Maulana Daud who had composed a similar love poem ‘Chandayan’ between 1371 CE and 1379 CE in the town of Dalmau near Rae Bareilly. Its heroine Chanda too belongs to the most beautiful and accomplished category of the Padmini women.

In ‘Padmavat’, Brahmin Raghav Chetan and Kshatriya Devapal, ruler of Chittor’s neighbouring kingdom Kumbhalmer, come through as much villainous as Allauddin Khilji. In Ratan Sen’s absence, Devapal offers to marry Padmavati and puts enormous coercive pressure on her, leading to a war between him and Ratan Sen. Sufi poets like Jayasi were familiar with the topoi (literary themes and formulas) of the earlier poetic works of Prakrit and Apabhransha and they made creative use of them to illumine the mystical content of their epic poems. The character of Padmavati should be viewed in the light of its literary significance and must not be confused with any historical person.

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